Half-Lessons from Cancer


Rather predictably, I cried when my brother doctor told me the news. “Stage 3, Ate,” he said. Then, I expected denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance to kick in, in that order. Yes, the stages of grief. I didn’t care how long each stage would last, I just wanted them to pan out in that order. My entire life, I preferred predictability in every thing I did, and plunging into what could very well be its terminal phase was not going to be an exception.

Except that the premise on which I hinged my expectation of predictability was wrong.

What kicked in was not grief or anything like it. It was a non-feeling, a disconnection. From the moment I was wheeled to the operating room to the moment that the device that delivered chemo drugs to my body was de-accessed for the last time, I was a disinterested observer viewing my own life. I did not wish for it to be that way. I had wanted – as they say – to be into it, to be engaged. I wanted the drama, the emotions, the thunder, and the lightning. But they were not forthcoming.

Naturally, though, I prayed. That, too, was difficult. While I know that prayers do not have to come with strong emotions, I did not want to be stone-faced before my God either. I asked God to heal me. There was no why in my prayers because the why part of my illness was clear to me. I knew why I got sick, and I blamed myself sans the unproductive beating of the breast. I did not take care of my body, and that was it. Notwithstanding, I asked God to please give me some more years, or if possible, many more years. Please, God, let me send off my youngest child to college the way I did the older three. Let me be the grandma who reads books to her grandchildren. And the hubby and I – we dream of growing old together, of sitting in identical rocking chairs and sipping coffee from identical mugs while finally reading the books we had no time for while the children were growing up and life was happening.

Over and above all, dear God, I am not yet ready to face You. I am scared of going you-know-where. There. I did feel something after all. Fear. After a lifetime of reasonably good formation, it is shameful that it comes to that instead of “because I offended Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love”. And as I knew that time may be running out for me to do something to stay out of eternal damnation, another realization rang painful and clear. I may have to die without having fully loved my God. And as I thought more about it, sadness crept and settled in beside my fear.

This fear-and-sadness combination, did it cause my seeming disinterestedness, my being dazed and unfeeling throughout my illness? Throughout all those chemo sessions? I do not want to analyze (or overanalyze); will that really change outcomes? In the end, I am still a cancer patient faced with the new normal of hospital admissions, medical diagnostics, diet don’ts and don’ts, limited mobility, and a colon a third of what it used to be.

Still, there were flashes of consciousness, however slight, and during those moments, realizations did spring clearly and unequivocally. I cling to those moments now because I have to make sense of what has happened to me. I know that cancer happened because I have to finally come to terms with what I have done with my life and what I have failed to do with it, who I am and who I am not. I have to finally come to terms with and face my God. Now. In this life.

As agonizing as it may be, I have to start accepting a failed past. A near-entire life marked by neglected opportunities to give more, to try more, and to love more. Oh, how different the present would have been for my loved ones, the people I have crossed paths with, and myself had I selflessly tried just a bit more each time that that was asked of me! I can wallow in shame and curse myself to my deathbed, but I choose to hope and to trust that my God will forgive me and show me a way out of this murk. Might He please teach me that there is nothing to fear about repentance, sacramental Confession, and penance? How do I turn this crippling fear to the conviction of the beloved that her Lover, in His enduring love and
infinite power to forgive, will welcome her back, wipe her tears away, and keep her close to His bosom?

And having received and felt forgiveness, how do I forgive in turn? It has not been an easy life. I have been hurt myself, undeservedly and oh so many times over. How do I finally turn my back to pain and bitterness and resolve that they will never, never consume me again? Is this it? Am I at that tipping point where I have to decide – with finality, this time – that the festered part of my being does not have to be all of my past and certainly not my present and my future? As my future pans out, can I liberate myself of all that should not be part of me?

I have always been in awe of the free will with which God has endowed His children. Is cancer His way of calling me to freely choose to love because He has loved me first? Repentance, penance, trust, hope, and yes, forgiveness, are they not all nestled in His love, genuine and pure? But I have learned all these as a young girl! As I reconsider them amidst my recent plight, I ask myself how I let these unchanging basics drift past me for most of my life. Still the future is before me, and it can still pan out differently.

I feel that I am ending this protracted musing with more questions than conclusions or resolutions. One of the few friends to whom I confided my illness and the good news of clear post-chemo scans said that I was spared because God wants me to finish something still. Thinking about what she said gives me an overwhelming feeling of gratitude because no matter how long or short the rest of my life would be, I have been gifted with a second chance to live it well. It also gives me hope, realizing that by freely responding to His love, I just might be able to fully grab that second chance and make something out of it. Finally, it gives me joy. After a lifetime of trying to put my life together by myself and using my own means, should I not delight now that Someone is holding my hand?

On most Christmas breaks, the hubby and I haul the children to the beach. For some reason, we bred four marine creatures and the sea gives them untold happiness. After my obligatory, reluctant, and singular dip, I wash myself free of the sticky sand, sit by myself by the beach with a book in hand, and stare at the horizon. On some days, the horizon is very clear so that one sees exactly where the sea stops and the sky begins. On other days, though, there seems to be no horizon but just a fuzzy line between sea and sky.

When I finally close my eyes, never to open them again on this earth, I want that fuzzy horizon. I want to go quietly, spontaneously, merely skipping over to the next life because having lived Heaven on earth, it is time to live Heaven for real.

“What a journey it has been
And the end is not in sight.
… I won’t let the darkness in,
What a journey it has been.”
~Excerpted from “The Journey”, Julie Gold, writer

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